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Perhaps we should be accustomed to the discovery of past transgressions, commonly of the social media variety, like the one last week involving White Sox hotshot pitcher Michael Kopech.
There are many among us involved in more pressing matters than noticing an improving ballclub but one that still remains 28 games under .500. There are family and friends that require our attention. In the local sporting world, the absence of Mitch Trubisky and the Bears offense in the penultimate game of their NFL preseason furrowed the brows of many fans.
Nevertheless, after being excused from further obligations at the minor league level, Kopech's grand entrance last Tuesday at The Grate attracted more attention on the South Side than witnessed all season.
Even the 22-year-old's first warm-up pitch in the bullpen was robustly cheered by the gathering crowd. Kopech then pitched two scoreless innings against the Twins - he fanned four, walked no one and yielded three hits - before a rain delay ended his debut. Despite the brief outing, his presence was marked by the 23,133 attendees rising as one each time he got two strikes on a hitter. Kopech's appearance was like a bursting dam, releasing a rush of the bottled-up anticipation and hope for the future of the franchise.
Kopech's parents, relatives and friends came to town for what was billed as an historic event in Sox history, and they partied late into the night at a downtown hotel to celebrate. Fans exiting the ballpark after the Sox 5-2 defeat could say, "I was there," for the first appearance by Kopech in a Sox uniform.
But then on Thursday some of the shine was abraded by the revelation that Kopech had a string of racial and homophobic tweets in 2013 when he was a lad of merely 17. As the microphones and cameras were shoved in his face this time, there was no mention of realizing a lifelong dream or visions of a Hall of Fame career. Keeping his composure, he instead used the boilerplate explanation of what motivated his intolerance and - is hate too strong a word? - of five years ago.
"Things I said . . . were immature and inappropriate," he admitted, "but it's not who I am now, and it's not who I want to be."
His words of contrition were similar to those of at least three other ballplayers this season whose past tweets as teenagers were offensive and hateful. Milwaukee's All-Star reliever Josh Hader, 24, was one of those. The hometown fans gave him a standing ovation for coming clean and apologizing, while he has been booed on the road.
None of this is new, and Kopech's situation, although disappointing and deflating to folks who would much rather dwell on his 100-mph fastball, is arguably less egregious than others we've seen.
Consider that the Bulls in the 1982 NBA draft selected Quintin Dailey in the first round with the 7th overall pick just a few months after he pleaded guilty to sexual assault in which he threatened the victim with a weapon. This development resulted in loud protests around the city and elsewhere, yet Dailey played four seasons with the Bulls and 10 years overall in the NBA.
Just last week, Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer issued an apology of sorts for not taking action against assistant coach Zach Smith, who had a long history of abusing his wife, Courtney Smith. Not until two days after his mea culpa did Meyer even mention the woman's name in a follow-up news conference.
Kopech is a small town guy, having grown up in Mt. Pleasant, Texas about 120 miles east of Dallas along Interstate-30. Travel another 65 miles east, and you're in Texarkana, Arkansas. This is not real estate familiar to most Chicagoans.
Mt. Pleasant has a few more than 15,000 citizens. Its high school sports teams are known more for football than baseball. Five alumni have played in the NFL including linebacker Barry Minter and punter Maury Buford, both of whom spent time with the Bears. Buford was a member of the 1985 Super Bowl champs.
Judging from photos of athletic teams and extracurricular activities, there are many students of color at Mt. Pleasant High. Apparently Kopech was not raised in a vacuum of diversity.
Kopech's tweets received criticism including an e-mail to me from a friend who wrote, "Ok, the guy is a racist and a homophobe. So was Ty Cobb, as far as racism is concerned. On the other hand, Kopech might be a great pitcher. Where do we go from here?"
In Friday's newspapers, Kopech answered, saying, "I was apologizing for what I said because I've never been a racist or homophobic. I just hope those who aren't close to me realize who I actually am and not that person."
Despite his explanation and contrition, much of the internet buzz was negative. Yahoo Sports labeled the tweets as "damaging and alienating." "Stupid, childish, and hurtful," characterized the backlash. "There is a giant target on his back."
Let's be clear about a few things. First of all, Kopech's tweets are not a reflection of his upbringing in small-town Texas. They could have emanated from 17-year-olds in just about any Chicago or big-city neighborhood. In addition, most of us can look back on our younger years with regret or shame about actions we'd like to take back. No one has a monopoly on purity and righteousness.
But most of us are not in the public eye the way Kopech is, and the tweets are not the lone blemish on his ledger. He received a 50-game suspension for a banned stimulant in 2015, and a year later he punched a teammate in spring training, breaking his hand. So, yes, people are, or should be, watching.
The kid also has 36,000 followers of his Twitter account, and he's posting regularly. He voluntarily puts himself out there. His followers are well aware that his present girlfriend is actress Vanessa Morgan of The CW's Riverdale. Kopech is a workout nut with Hollywood good-looks. The gossip magazines took note last spring when his romance with a reality TV star ended. All this and the guy hadn't even advanced past Double-A!
Meanwhile, to his credit, Kopech was focused and centered on Sunday in his second outing, at Comerica Park in Detroit where he pitched six innings of one-run ball as the Sox took a 7-2 victory to win the series three games to one. Kopech didn't issue a walk, although he hit a couple of batters while fanning four to collect his first big league win.
In the early innings Sunday on the Sox telecast, Jason Benetti pounced onto the Kopech bandwagon, his voice rising on every strike that Kopech threw. At one point, he asked Steve Stone to evaluate Kopech's performance and, after a pause, Stone settled things down by saying, "Let wait until the second time through the order."
Let's wait a lot longer than that. To be sure, Kopech was impressive last week, but he was not overwhelming. He pitched eight innings in which he retired the side in order three times. He yielded 10 hits, struck out eight, walked no one, but hit three batters. Of the 36 hitters he faced, 13 reached base. Veteran hitters like the Twins' Joe Mauer and the Tigers' Victor Martinez lined Kopech fastballs for three of the hits.
Kopech's next assignment will come this week when the Red Sox, the organization that dealt him in the Chris Sale swap, invade The Grate. Facing guys like J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts and the rest of that high-scoring crew will be a good test for the young right-hander.
Kopech must be aware that major league hitters are not going to be intimidated by his blazing fastball, the surrounding hype, his lovely women friends, or his Twitter posts. Sooner or later he's going to get knocked around, and we'll learn a lot more about Michael Kopech when that happens.
In the meantime, might not a lower profile be helpful? That could be the best place to go from here.
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Posted on May 13, 2021